Tom Hanks delivers power, promise with ‘Uncommon Type’

Nick Botkin

As Forrest Gump would say, life is like a box of chocolates. 

The same could be said of  Tom Hanks’ new story collection, “Uncommon Type.” The stories are varied, but offer an array of experiences. They  range from a boy discovering his father’s infidelity to a man who time-travels to the 1939 World’s Fair. Love, family, adolescence and the past are all leitmotifs.

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A photo of actor Tom Hanks
Actor Tom Hanks’ short-story collection offers an array of themes and plays with textual forms (photo courtesy of US Department of State)

The one thing that ties the collection together: Typewriters. Hanks is a prolific collector of typewriters and it is fun to see the ways he deftly weaves them into his narratives. Characters write letters and other documents on typewriters. One story, “These Are The Meditations of My Heart,”  focuses on a young woman purchasing a vintage typewriter. But the collection is much more than typewriters.

One particular story, “A Junket In The City of Light,” demonstrates Hanks’ authorial versatility. It also illuminates his ability to deploy humor. Hanks may be a Hollywood icon, but he is not afraid to expose its propensity for perfidy and emptiness. Actors on a publicity tour for a movie called “Cassandra Rampart 3” run into misfortunes and mishaps. Actors rise and fall quickly. Personal narrative is supplanted by image and publicity in the world Hanks explores here.

In this particular piece, Hanks not only employs conventional narrative, but also intersperses it with trip agendas, adding a new layer of text. Hanks redefines what a text is. This strength is also abundantly clear in another story, “Stay With Us,” which is written in the form of a screenplay.

Another strength of these stories is Hanks’ use of point-of-view. In many stories, Hanks can move us from one character’s point-of-view to another smoothly. This allows us access to characters’ thoughts, in ways that other point-of-view moves cannot.

That said, there are a few weaknesses. The endings feel almost abrupt and unfinished in many stories. As a reader, I felt that characters’ experiences were not fully realized. It is a shame, given Hanks’ ability to craft pieces with strong stakes. All the pieces are in place, ready to be assembled. However, often enough the stories do not get to the core of their narratives.

In one poignant story, “A Special Weekend,” the child of divorced parents goes to visit his mother. To be honest, this was my personal favorite, flaws not withstanding.  In this story, our protagonist is a young boy being caught between two worlds. He lives with his father, stepmother and siblings. He has not lived with his mother since he was five. During his visit, the boy discovers his mother has a lover. This offers much to work with, yet Hanks seems to shy from it. In this particular story, does the boy feel abandoned? Does he feel resentment toward the mother who left? These are things that Hanks could have addressed.

Bottom line: Hanks shows real promise. While his stories could use some fine-tuning, I hope Mr. Hanks pursues his passion further. He has a truly imaginative mind and an artist’s passion for exploring the human condition. Mr. Hanks is no dilettante. I look forward to seeing his style evolve over time. My other suggestion: Give us a David S. Pumpkins short story.

Book: “Uncommon Type: Some Stories”

Author: Tom Hanks

Number of stories: 17

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Pages: 416

Publisher: Albert A. Knopf

Some places to buy: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Fun fact: The story “These Are The Meditations of My Heart” is semi-autobiographical. Tom Hanks said that the story is based on his experience purchasing his first typewriter.

Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com. His Twitter handle is @dudesosad